Ladbroke bets dollars 20m on joint venture in US: Sixty-table card club signals group's move into hard gaming

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LADBROKE has further whetted its appetite for hard gaming in the US by pumping dollars 20m into a joint venture to build a 60-table card club in San Pablo, near San Francisco.

The move comes three weeks after the group returned to the London casino market, and is the first of several US deals in its sights.

The joint venture is necessary to comply with California law, which forbids publicly quoted companies to hold card club licences. The club, aimed mainly at poker players, will be run by SF Casino Management, headed by Stanley Friedman, former chairman of the San Francisco Bar Association.

Ladbroke is involved only in the soft end of gaming in the US, through four racetracks it owns and operates, and it is keen to tap into the booming and lucrative hard gaming markets.

The origin of the recent boom owes much to the US decision to allow native Americans to open gaming operations on reservations. Most of the non-native growth in casinos has been aboard Mississippi riverboats.

The card-club deal is also partly a defensive manoeuvre: Ladbroke owns the nearby Golden Gate Fields racetrack.

The company rejected suggestions that the deal hinged on its return to casinos in London, 15 years after it was stripped of its licences by the Gaming Board.

'The opportunity was available to do this deal and it was one we couldn't miss. If we did not take it it would have been competitive to the track,' a spokesman said.

Despite the proximity of Las Vegas, the Californian authorities have had a puritanical approach to hard gaming. Pressure to open the market has come from local authorities, which see it as a route to high tax revenues.

The club's profits will come from a levy on money exchanged for gaming chips. Ladbroke expects to recoup its investment in the club, scheduled to open next autumn, in three years.

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